Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 14: now I am what I saw + Christopher Allen-Doucot

Sand Opera Lenten Journey Day 14

Jesus spoke to the crowds and to his disciples, saying,
“The scribes and the Pharisees
have taken their seat on the chair of Moses.
Therefore, do and observe all things whatsoever they tell you,
but do not follow their example.
For they preach but they do not practice.
They tie up heavy burdens hard to carry
and lay them on people’s shoulders,
but they will not lift a finger to move them.
--The Gospel of Matthew

(echo /ex/)

                        Now I am                                what I saw

                                                                        naked and                    tied


                                    lift up his eyes                             cuffed together

I saw ████ fucking a kid

Behold                                                   all the doors with sheets

I saw██████████████████████████████████
            the cell                                     I will go down now

            on the other side          sheets again on the doors        G


                                                            the phosphoric light

                        for God’s help  ████████

                                    in his ass                      dust and ash

                                                                        standing under

I was there                   without me seeing                   


If there’s something that I wished Sand Opera had done more thoroughly, it would would have been to lay bare the longer history and wider networks of imperial power that led to things such as the rape of children at Abu Ghraib. Still, one need only go back ten years before to the infamous Albright quote to remind ourselves of the not-so-hidden callousness embedded in political force. I recall with pain this conversation between Lesley Stahl of CBS News and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Stahl: “We have heard that half a million children have died. I mean, that's more children than died in Hiroshima. And, you know, is the price worth it?” Madeleine Albright replied: “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price—we think the price is worth it.” She has since stated that she regretted the statement, and others have questioned the number, which was undoubtedly hyper-inflated and based on surveys rather than statistical data. But it is also clear that many thousands died and many thousands others were born with birth defects caused by depleted uranium weaponry. Christopher Allen-Doucot’s first person account of visiting one Iraqi hospital poignantly explores the damage that war, sanctions, and oppression (both internal and external) visited upon Iraqis.  

A Prayer for Binit Ukhti

by Christopher Allen-Doucot

She arrived at the children’s cemetery just before dusk. Her black abeia was billowing in the mounting wind revealing a red dress and a pregnant form. The gusts were the leading edge of a sandstorm. She walked past hundreds of small mounds and by a trio of goats eating at the scrub around the markers, to an open-air mud brick and thatch work area. An elderly man wearing a white robe and kafia greeted her and accepted the shoebox she carried with her. Few words were spoken. The box was handed to one of three younger men who worked at the graveyard. The young man moved to the rear of the work area and with great care removed from the box the woman’s niece, in Arabic her Binit Ukhti.

The child had been born onto earth, into hell and unto eternity earlier in the day at the Basra Pediatric and Maternity hospital in southern Iraq. The wards at this hospital are full of mourning mothers and dying children. In any given room can be found children with rickets, marasmus, kwashiorkor, typhoid fever, cholera or cancer. The maternity ward has an air not of hopeful anticipation but of fearful repose: will the expected child be whole? The day before Binit Ukhti was born a hydrocephalic child and a child missing his head, neck and arms were born and died on the ward.

Basra Pediatric and Maternity is a teaching hospital. In an earlier era: before massive bombardment by American forces, before widespread contamination of the soil by radioactive depleted Uranium - a toxic heavy metal used in thousands of munitions fired by the Americans, before 10 years of deprivation induced by the most comprehensive sanctions regime in history; before this madness young doctors learned about typhoid, polio and malnutrition from textbooks and congenital defects were cleft palettes and club feet.  One classroom in the hospital is a gallery of grotesquery with dozens of photographs of the horrendously deformed children that are born and perish daily.

Next to this classroom is the hospital morgue; it is cool at best. The actual drawers where the corpses are kept are not quite cold. The purchase of coolant fluids, needed to maintain the unit, is constrained by the sanctions. The entire room smelled like an unplugged dirty refrigerator. The nation’s electrical grid was targeted by the U.S. during the Gulf War. Restrictions imposed by the sanctions have hampered repair efforts and so when the power goes out twice a day for three hours the morgue begins to warm up. Thus when a child dies she is sent home with the family to be buried. The day Binit Ukhti died the morgue had 15 boxes with 15 babies that had been unclaimed because their families couldn’t pay to bury them. The family of Binit Ukhti raised the 5,000 Iraqi Dinar, roughly $2.50, for burial.  
Back at the cemetery the worker placed the naked body of Binit Ukhti, umbilical cord still attached to her belly, on a three foot square stone slab at the rear of the chamber as carefully as if he were placing her in a bassinet. The man filled a plastic pitcher and a teakettle with water. He measured the child and cut a length of white linen from a bolt kept in a satchel. The aunt then joined the man at the rear slab and together they gracefully washed the body with a yellow bar of soap and a cloth. The woman rinsed the girl with the water in the kettle.

Meanwhile a gravedigger was busy digging his second sepulcher of the hour. The hole was three feet deep, too narrow to turn around in and not long enough for the man to take a step. He would soon carve a third opening. At midnight he would be done for the day- a true graveyard shift.

In the work shanty the man dried the body and moved her to a stone slab in the center of the space. Beneath the child lay the length of linen. The young man opened a jar that once held powdered baby formula. The vessel now contains the white powder made from the sacred Cidra tree. He dipped his fingers in the sacrosanct concentrate and anointed Binit Ukhti on her hands, feet, elbows, and knees. The body was then swathed tenderly. Only the face of Binit Ukhti, snugly framed by the linen, was left exposed as if the burial swaddling was an ivory abeia. Another length of linen was then wrapped around the body and tied with strips of the fabric below the feet, above the head and in the mid-section.  These men repeat this ritual 2 or 3 times an hour during their shifts. They move with grace and condolence. They are not toilers--automatons bundling inanimate packages. They are midwives of rebirth--forming new placentas so that the children they meet can be delivered into the expectant hands of Allah.

A prayer was uttered and then the aunt in her crimson dress and ebony abeia picked up the body to surrender Binit to the grave. She processed alone through a labyrinth of tombstones with Binit resting on her swollen belly. The sky was gray, the sun was white. The graves before her, behind her and beside her were ashen. There were neither flowers nor grass. To the left of the cemetery a group of teenage boys played soccer in a lush field of grass ringed by a dozen date trees. Everywhere in Iraq, in urban vacant lots and on the dirt roads that run between fields of wheat, children and young men gather to chase the white and black ball.
To the right of the cemetery a wedding was taking place. Dozens of children, the girls in peach and yellow dresses played in the street outside the parlor where the ceremony was underway. Weddings in Iraq are brief outbursts of joy in a milieu of despondency. Typically weddings happen in parlors on Thursday afternoons and evenings, though this wedding was on a Sunday. Outside the wedding chamber a crowd of revelers waited in anticipation. The couple’s car was decorated with white and pink crepe paper. Three school busses idled to take the assembly to the reception. Men with trumpets and drums prepared to announce the union of woman and man.

In between these scenes of life the aunt carried Binit Ukhti. At the grave the body was placed on a leveled mound of dirt. Her shroud was opened slightly and a handful of earth was placed with the body before the cloak was again closed. Another verse of the Koran was prayed and, as the body was interred, the newly married couple stepped outside to the excited blast of trumpets and pulses of drums. The union of child with God was heralded to all that bothered to notice.

When Mary, pregnant with Jesus, went to see Elizabeth, pregnant with the Baptizer, John “leaped for joy in the womb.” The Good News was soon to enter our world. When her aunt rested Binit Ukhti on her belly did the child awaiting birth recoil in fear of life during war? Or did she leap with joy because Binit had been spared a life of suffering and instead had been returned into the womb of Allah to be born into life everlasting?

Christopher Allen-Doucot is, with his wife Jackie, the co-founder of the Hartford Catholic Worker and an adjunct professor at Central Connecticut State University.


Maureen said...

Thank you for publishing here 'A Prayer for Binit Ukhti", a moving, beautifully written essay of contrast. What stands out especially is how life and death co-exist, side by side, and how we humans can be brutally cruel and also profoundly tender.

Albright's remarks still rankle, so astonishing are they in their callousness.

Perhaps instead of incarcerating people, we should send them to the Middle East to work among the suffering, to feel the terror they feel, to know the loss and sadness that mark each day . I'd like to think it would make a difference.

The state of Iraq today is horrifying, and it seems that most Americans either have no knowledge whatsoever of the havoc we wrought or don't care. How does one look at the pictures still coming out of the Middle East and not care? I don't know what to say to someone who thinks the Iraqis (and Syrians and Palestinians) deserve their suffering.

Tom Clark today published Mahmoud Darwish's poem "Psalm 9". One of its lines is "A stone is not what I am". It's an epigraph I've added to the Lynndie England poem I wrote yesterday. England and those like her, and they are too many in number, will never achieve the state of grace Allen-Doucot's essay captures.

Philip Metres said...

Thanks, Maureen. Chris's witness, so well described in his essay, is a model of how writing can make invisible what has been hidden from us.